American tech companies may benefit from half-hearted regulations at home, but abroad, they must now contend with a powerful new law. The European Union has passed the Digital Services Act, which will levy fines against social media platforms that fail to remove offending content posted by their users.
The infractions targeted by the Act include hate speech, child sexual abuse, scams, and the promotion of terrorism. When platforms are notified of these types of posts, they will be required to take swift action, or else they will face steep fines imposed by the E.U. Massive corporations like Meta and Google could rack up in billions of dollars in fines if they don’t comply with the new mandate. Repeat offenders could be banned in E.U. territories.
If you’re asking “what if the tech companies aren’t notified about the offending content,” the E.U. has an answer for that too. The Digital Services Act requires platforms to expand their reporting systems, so that users can easily pass on violative posts wherever they occur. This policy (and the Digital Services Act in general) is built on top of an E.U. code of conduct that big tech corporations signed in 2016.
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And it doesn’t stop there. The Digital Services Act is a wide-ranging piece of legislation that also prohibits ads targeted at minors and ads that target a user based on their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This is an area where the E.U. is paying close attention to the social media industry’s practices. Last year, the governing body censured TikTok amid concerns that the social video app had not properly secured the data of its underage users.
It could be argued that the Digital Servies Act is the most significant piece of social media regulation ever passed by a government entity. With the law, the E.U. is looking to enter a new age of digital enforcement. “With the DSA, the time of big online platforms behaving like they are ‘too big to care’ is coming to an end,” said E.U. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton.
Speaking of those big online platforms…
They don’t seem too pleased about the E.U.’s decision.
According to PBS NewsHour, tech companies “furiously lobbied Brussels to water down the legislation” before it was ultimately passed. In a statement discussing the Digital Services Act, Twitter stressed the need for “smart, forward thinking regulation that balances the need to tackle online harm with protecting the Open Internet.”
That precarious balance has long been a source of debate in the United States. These sorts of regulations can mitigate digital harm, but they also set a dangerous precedent. Domestically, Silicon Valley tech companies are protected by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states that social media platforms are not the publishers of the content their users’ posts, and therefore cannot be held liable for it. A similar “safe harbor” provision also protects YouTube et al. from culpability related to copyright infringement.
When a Trump-era order sought to strip Section 230 protections, Google told Tubefilter that the mandate “would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.” Two years earlier, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki had spoken out after the E.U. passed an article that made tech companies liable for copyright infringement.
“This legislation poses a threat to both your livelihood and your ability to share your voice with the world,” Wojcicki wrote at the time. “And, if implemented as proposed, Article 13 threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs, European creators, businesses, artists, and everyone they employ.”
For its part, the E.U. has included extensive review policies in the Digital Services Act in hopes of protecting free speech. At the same time, German justice minister Marco Buschmann stated that “death threats, aggressive insults, and incitement to violence aren’t expressions of free speech but rather attacks on free and open discourse.”
Long story short: online hate speech is a complex issue. Events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine have shown the importance of curbing violative digital content, but if authorities reach too far in those efforts, backlash can easily intensify.
Luckily, there’s plenty of time to figure out how exactly the Digital Services Act should be enforced. The law still needs to be officially approved, and that process isn’t expected to conclude until later this year. After that, the law will go into effect 15 months later, or on January 1, 2024, whichever comes sooner.